Ruddock hopes rotation policy brings best out of juniors
The current crop of Ireland under 20s didn't arrive at the Junior World Championship in France as one of the best to leave these shores, never mind as favourites for the tournament itself, but already they are on course to better last year's fifth-place finish.
If you tuned in to the win over Australia last Wednesday night then you'll have seen what it meant to them. This is the toughest tournament in rugby: three games in nine days, and the IRB's concession of stretching the squads out to 28 players acknowledges the issue rather than addressing it.
Add in for this gig the searing heat of a French summer, and the fact that Ireland have three Polynesian-based teams in their pool – New Zealand, Australia (who, for example, had 10 Polynesian players in their starting line-up last week) and you appreciate that physically this is a much steeper climb than the equivalent at senior level, by which stage the Europeans have caught up.
It figures then that by close of business this evening, coach Mike Ruddock will have used all of his 28 players over the opening two games. Eleven changes for this contest with Fiji won't fundamentally weaken the side, and given that tighthead Chris Taylor and second-row Gavin Thornbury would have been first-choice picks but for their trek back from injury, this combination should be well up to the task.
"The guys who are coming in are really up for it and it will increase the competition for places," Ruddock says. "The bottom line is that I want to win the tournament and the lads feel the same way. We came out here not trying to please everybody and the lads knew at the start that there'd be times when it would be difficult – they might be in or out of the side – because this is not a development tour.
"But the players I've brought in are good enough to win, and they're fresh as well which is the key factor given the intensity and physicality of that last game."
That win over Australia puts the junior Wallabies under extreme pressure, for if they lose to New Zealand tonight – who, typically, already look like a high-speed train – and Ireland sort out Fiji, then they won't be seeing the semi-finals.
The final four will be made up of the three pool winners and the best runner-up, where pool points, points' difference and try difference are the first three criteria to determine that fourth slot. Ruddock is hardly about to call for a landslide win over Fiji, but victory with something to spare would come in useful when the sums are being done later this week.
Fortunately for him and his players, this evening they will be up against a more disciplined bunch after Fiji's collapse against the Baby Blacks where at one stage they were down to 12 players, with two gone on red cards for dangerous tackles.
"I think the IRB may have spoken to them about that so we'll see," Ruddock says. "My main concern is that with the new lads coming in we can gel quickly as a team."
Ireland: D Leader; D Sweetnam, M Roche, T Daly, R Scholes; S Crosbie, D Shanahan; E Byrne, B Byrne, C Taylor, G Thornbury, S McCarthy, C Joyce (capt), J O'Donoghue, D Leavy. Replacements: G McGuigan, P Dooley, R Furniss, J Donnan, J van der Flier, L McGrath, R Scannell, D Panter.
TG4, kick-off 5.45